“I want a bulldog who will fight for me. No compromises! It’s a matter of principle!”
It’s a sentiment I often hear in my legal practice. And one I completely understand. When someone does you wrong, you want to get back all they’ve taken from you. And, for many people, they think the only way to do that is to launch a full-scale fight led by a bulldog; someone who will go to war for them. And, while I sympathize with the feeling, I know from experience that the “dog fight” path is often expensive, time-consuming and ultimately unsatisfying for the client. Not only does it cost more, but it may not lead to a better result. And it gives the problem real power over a client’s life for a very long time.
There are many ways of responding to a dispute. Some involve fighting and some involve negotiating. Many involve both, but in different amounts. Before letting the dogs out, I often counsel clients to consider alternative approaches.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes you do need the bulldog and a fight to the death. But, that shouldn’t be your first move. Those of us who have been in this business for a long time know that the vast majority of legal disputes get settled. Knowing that, we go into many cases looking for alternatives before escalating to the dog fight.
A fancy way of saying this is don’t let your strategy determine the goal. You don’t want to decide on a strategy (fight to the death) and then accept the best result that strategy provides. Instead, pick a realistic goal first, and then decide what strategy will give you the best chance of achieving it. That’s a decision to be made after considering all the possible alternatives.
When someone comes to me with a problem, I start by helping them focus on what they want to accomplish and what their priorities and constraints are. You’d be surprised at how often the most important goal is something other than “destroy the other side” or “get as much money as possible.” Then, I look at the most efficient way to reach those goals (or get as close as possible to them) within the client’s constraints. And I customize a strategy for that particular client in that situation. No two clients, and no two disputes, are alike. Why would anyone think that what works for one will work as well for another?
Sometimes clients resist that process. They want to go to war. What they really want is for me to agree with them and to fight the battle that’s going on in their head. And when I ask them to consider the costs of winning and the possibility of losing they may think I don’t believe them. Trust me: this has nothing to do with not believing them. It has everything to do with the ultimate costs, risks and rewards. Costs include not just money (legal fees), but time (it could take a year or two out of a client’s life) and emotional stress. And, while I may very well agree with a client’s point of view, I’m not doing my job unless I help the client think about whether the price of “getting all I deserve” is really worth it. Especially if I can get them close to their goal without the time, stress and fees that an extended legal battle will cost them.
Other times it’s the lawyer who makes every dispute into an all-out war. Though a lawyer like that might satisfy a client’s need for revenge, it is unlikely the client will end up as well-off as he would have with a lawyer who considered alternate approaches.
My advice to clients who think about unleashing a “bulldog” is to think again. Talk to a lawyer who is focused on the result you’re looking for. Work with that attorney to agree on a goal that combines what you really want with what is realistically most achievable and most cost-effective.
Bull dogs can make great pets, but they don’t have the flexibility and creativity to get you the “bone” that’s best for you. Adopt them. Feed them. Pamper them. But don’t automatically unleash them on your legal disputes.